Media Agencies: Will Dart Hit the Target?

It’s a conundrum that has bedeviled big marketers since the dawn of advertising: How can they make sure they are tapping the right consumers and getting the most from their advertising dollar? Here’s a case in point. Over the last few years, Chrysler Corp. has interviewed some 27,000 potential car buyers as part of its customer-relationship management program. The automaker’s researchers have built a complex database of information regarding the subtleties of car-buying behavior that has gone beyond traditional demographics. It includes patterns and correspondences among age changes, income levels and car-purchasing cycles, to name a few.
Yet no matter how many facts it compiles about consumer behavior, Chrysler’s data crunchers have consistently been stymied by a missing link in the information pipeline. Despite the tremendous strides Chrysler researchers have made in understanding its target market, the process of planning and buying TV airtime has remained more an art than a science. “The problem is shaping brand plans that reflect a stronger relationship with our customers and prospects, and shaping media plans and buys that reflect a stronger management of those relationships through our communications programs,” says David Martin, president and CEO of Pentacom, Chrysler’s media agency. “Managing those relationships has been hampered by information we’ve been unable to get from Nielsen.”
That will soon change. Nielsen Media Research, which has long controlled the market for TV viewership data, is slapping the finishing touches on a series of new products and services it hopes will puncture longstanding gripes that the company has lagged behind the digital communications revolution. At its annual national customer meeting this month in Orlando, Fla., Nielsen plans to unveil its Direct Access Research Tools (DART), which has been touted as the biggest breakthrough in media-planning technology in the last 20 years.
DART delivers what agencies and clients have been clamoring for Nielsen to provide for years. It is a package of hardware and software applications that permit real-time electronic access and analysis of data produced by the 5,000 people-metered Nielsen homes. Nielsen claims that DART will hand media buyers reams of information never available before, including viewership data from all program sources, and applications such as true reach-and-frequency analysis, source and destination data (which stations did channel surfers click from, and which they are skipping to) and co-viewing information. The company says some customers could start beta-testing DART as early as May; it hopes to begin selling the new service widely later this year.
But the long-anticipated great leap forward in audience-measurement capability has sparked a contentious debate between Nielsen and its clients that reverberates through the tightly knit media planning and buying universe. The issue is what sort of data should Nielsen provide its customers-and how much customers should pay for the new digital tool kit. As more agencies embrace a new breed of sophisticated computer software programs known as optimizers, which are designed to improve TV time planning and buying by manipulating real-time audience measurement data, they have begun to demand greater access to Nielsen’s stream of raw audience data.
That request has put them at loggerheads with Nielsen. The research company has so far refused to give carte-blanche access to its proprietary information trove. And it has antagonized buyers with its attempts to wring more cash out of their pockets for limited access to people-meter data. Major media agencies already pony up between $600,000 and $1.2 million to subscribe to Nielsen’s primary national TV measurement services. They are reluctant, to say the least, to pay more. Meanwhile, many big advertisers, such as Procter & Gamble, are demanding that media agencies provide increasingly sophisticated breakdowns of TV audience viewership in order to support their time-buying recommendations.
“This is going to be one of the most important issues, if not the most important issue, in media in 1998,” says David Marans, director of J. Walter Thompson USA’s media research operation and chairman of the agency’s Global Media Group.
The dollars-and-cents fallout of agency profit margins-already under unrelenting attack from anxious clients to prove that their media investment strategies are paying off-may be profound. The DART imbroglio occurs as media agencies are counting down to this spring’s upfront selling season, perhaps the most crucial one ever faced. Call it the dawn of the Show Me era of media planning.
Following such record-breaking (and perhaps budget-busting) deals as the National Football League’s $17.6 billion broadcast pact and NBC’s decision to fork over $13 million per episode in order to keep ER on its airwaves, TV networks will have no choice but to pass along some of their skyrocketing programming costs to advertisers. Client demands that airtime buys deliver the goods will only increase, as will buyers’ accountability for their plan.
As both publisher of viewership data and owner of software systems that analyze it, Nielsen enjoys the enviable position of being the only game in town. Yet the company has been slow, by its own admission, to update its audience-measurement systems, even as national TV audiences have fragmented into ever-smaller segments. Some media agencies have been chagrined to discover that after investing heavily in new optimizers, the available data stream from Nielsen causes the software to operate below par.
“We’re very aware we need to be faster at responding to agencies’ and clients’ needs for customized data,” says Susan Whiting, Nielsen Media Research’s general manager of new and emerging markets. “Once we establish the information platforms our customers are looking for from the data we’re able to gather, it’s in our interest to be of greatest service possible.”
So far, only top-tier media agencies can afford to pay the freight for the new optimizer technology. And if they have to, they will gladly dig a little deeper for simpler access to the reams of individual viewer data for their analysis and customization. But Nielsen prefers to release the data on a proprietary, ˆ la carte basis. That’s more profitable for Nielsen-and more accessible to smaller and midsize agencies that don’t have the dedicated media analysis systems and financial resources to pay for it. The handful of large agencies that can afford the new technology are likely to enjoy a tremendous competitive advantage. Smaller media agencies could wind up out of luck.
Nielsen has boosted efforts to siphon more data out of its audience samples. It has begun using its people meters to collect data on the minute-by-minute viewing behavior of individuals within its 5,000-household sample. This past fall, Nielsen completed a “persons cume study” of its people-meter sample, yielding a snapshot of minute-by-minute viewer data that media-agency researchers have been after. Nielsen has also developed respondent level data for one minute in the middle of every quarter hour of national TV programming, which adds the ability to monitor individual viewing to a greater degree than ever before.
Still, some media researchers say DART isn’t likely to provide access to the well of data they now need. Agencies, which are investing between $20,000 and $1 million in optimizer software programs, such as SuperMidas, X*pert and Spot On, believe their hefty subscription fees for Nielsen services should provide them access to the whole well of respondent level data. Says Thompson’s Marans, “Our patience with Nielsen is wearing thin. The U.S. television market remains hampered by the lack of access to respondent level data that would be so valuable to our ability to deliver the best planning and buying services to our clients.”
Other media researchers agree. “Nielsen still has an archaic perspective on the national television landscape,” says Beth Uyenco, senior vice president and director of media research for DDB Needham’s Optimum Media unit. “Their data still exists in books. That’s not how the world works these days.”
Nielsen says it’s making a concerted effort to address these concerns. “We’re moving toward putting a new set of applications on the desktop with a much more fixed-price rate structure,” says Whiting. “Our conversations with agencies have been to try to identify what it is they really need, what software initiatives they’ve taken and how we can develop better responsiveness to those needs and initiatives.”
Nielsen and its clients will eventually have to reach some sort of compromise concerning DART. After all, what choice does either side have? More than you might think. The media department of Grey Advertising, for example, has optimizers in place that make some of Nielsen’s DART applications unnecessary, says Mark Green, the agency’s worldwide vice president of research and systems. But Green insists he would still subscribe to DART if it were the only way to secure Nielsen’s data so he could provide clients with custom analysis. “If I can get the level of access to the data I need in a timely manner, down to the granular [individual viewer] level, I don’t mind having to walk down the street to get it,” Green says. “As long as there’s no additional charge.” Nielsen has yet to reveal its pricing for the new platforms, but it’s safe to assume it won’t be cheap.
Media executives might be well advised to be careful what they wish for. After all, they just might get it. “We have the technology in place to soon actually look at viewership and audience patterns for each commercial message,” explains Whiting. If that’s the case, do media agencies really want their clients to have the ability to see precisely how many of their carefully wrought, highly produced and expensive TV ads are zapped into oblivion by fidgety-fingered channel surfers? The point of media research has always been to get the most for the money paid for media space and time, but the prospect of being able to know who actually watches and who zaps a commercial means that for the first time, marketer, ad agencies and media buyers might have a technological means to finally answer a question that has dogged advertising for decades. Namely, does it work?
DART could go down in broadcasting history as the Pandora’s box of the ad industry. And media buyers better steel themselves for a possible flurry of furious morning-after phone calls from clients who have seen their ad dollars vanish with nary a trace in the electronic ether’s equivalent of the Bermuda Triangle. When all is said and done, media agencies and their clients might find themselves wishing they could forget the audience secrets that Nielsen’s new tools promise to reveal.